Ron DeSantis is building a near-bulletproof shield against criticism in the news. A pair of bills working their way through the Florida state legislature would make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation, and also shield records on how and where the Florida governor goes (including retroactively).
DeSantis has adopted a classic Republican talking point: casting the news media as an enemy. These two bills are just the latest efforts by his government to curb news in the state.
The first bill, passed by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee last week, would make it easier to sue journalists for defamation. The measure expands the definition of defamation but makes it harder to sue elected public officials. The bill also dictates that information from an anonymous source is “presumptively false,” with no exceptions for whistleblowers.
People accused of discriminating against someone’s sex, gender, sexual orientation, or race based on personal scientific or religious belief would be protected against defamation charges. Judges and juries would be allowed to “infer actual malice,” instead of the plaintiff needing to prove it. If the plaintiff wins, they could collect legal fees from the news organization they sued, instead of both parties paying their own costs.
People on both sides of the political spectrum have decried the measure, with Bobby Block, the executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, calling it a “death knell for American traditions of free speech.”
But he also warned that conservative outlets would be even more vulnerable to defamation lawsuits, because “much of conservative programming centers on commentary and opinion,” which is usually “purposefully provocative and colorful.”
James Schwartzel, the owner of a conservative talk-radio station, said the bill would mark “the death of conservative talk throughout the state of Florida.”
Separately, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee advanced a bill Wednesday that would block reporters from accessing information about how and where DeSantis and other government officials travel. The bill, the first of its kind, would also work retroactively to prevent anyone from examining how officials have used state travel in the past.
DeSantis is currently on a press tour for his book, which many suspect is doubling as a warmup for his anticipated presidential campaign. Questions are rising about whether taxpayer funds have been used to pay for his travel—and soon, we may never know the answer.
Florida lawmakers are clamping down on journalism in the state in a way that smacks of authoritarianism. Earlier this month, a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill that would require paid bloggers who write about elected officials to first register with the state.
DeSantis himself has remained a constant in headlines as of late for cracking down on human rights in his state, particularly for people of color and women and gender minorities. The Republican, seen as a front-runner for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination, has declared war on all things “woke” and is clearly making good on his promise.